Taking a shot for a healthier world


Graphic: Madzia McCutcheon

“On my parents’ farm in New Hampshire there’s a small graveyard, there’s 36 graves, and about 25 of those are for children under two. They most probably all died of vaccine-preventable diseases. All the dates on these gravestones are late-1800s to early-1900, before vaccines came into common use. That’s what used to happen: you would try to have 10 children and three of them would live — not nice,” said Donald Gerson, co-founder and CEO of PnuVax, during a lecture titled “A Wide-Angle View of Vaccine R&D and Manufacturing” March 27.

Thanks to vaccines, diseases like smallpox and a cow disease called Rinderpest have been completely erradicated. 

“But tetanus, diphtheria, polio, whooping cough, pneumonia, measles — in spite of all the nonsense lately — hepatitis A and B, and the flu, all these things are much reduced — that means 99% per centof what it was in 1950. That’s a huge difference in human productivity, human lives, quality of life and all kinds of things,” Gerson went on to say.

The measles, mumps, rubella combination vaccine has done more to prevent blindness and deafness in the population than practically anything else. Vaccines do not make you completely immune to the diseases — they only prepare your body to better fight off a full-blown infection. 

“So these are very important, and in spite of the stuff you might hear on the news or wrong sources on the Internet, the side effects are practically zero,” said Gerson. “There’s a lot of nonsense out there, but there’s a lot of serious data over decades that show that these are the best medical prevention that you can obtain.”

Over the years, a lot of people have gotten involved. The government has put in regulations on how vaccinations are synthesized, public health agencies have tried to educate the population and parents have spoken for and against vaccines. The anti-vaccine movement has been affecting vaccines for over a decade now. Lyme disease, a bacterial disease similar to syphilis, is an increasing concern in Canada, has no available vaccine because of failure of limited social acceptance. Ten years ago, a vaccine for Lyme disease, was created, but it failed to gain social acceptance once on the market thanks in large part to the anti-vaccine movement, forcing the company to take it off the market.  

The Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care released a warning in 2014 for “an increasing number of areas in Ontario where ticks carrying Lyme disease are found.” The Public Health Agency of Canada reported 338 diagnosed cases in 2012 and 682 cases in 2013. The number of cases for 2014 has yet to be determined. 

“For a short few years, people could get protection against Lyme disease which is a debilitating horrible disease, and now you can’t anymore because of failure of social acceptance,” Gerson said.

Some opponents of the pharmaceutical sector claim that vaccines are a way for the industry to increase profit margins. However, vaccines are only a small portion of the pharmaceutical sector, and vaccines are set at a low price considering the health benefits; hence, the millions that companies invest in vaccines does not translate into large profit margins. 

“This has an effect on the number of kinds of vaccines available — 20  worldwide,” Gerson said. 

“You don’t like paying $1,000 for vaccines, but in the course of the year you might pay $1,000 for hard drugs,” Gerson commented.  Vaccinations may not give full immunity, but they do offer a layer of protection for free in countries like Canada. Mariana Puig, a UW 3B liberal arts student, recently contracted measles despite receiving the two vaccination shots. 

“It was horrible. It was like having the flu and something else. Not being able to get up, everything weighed 400 pounds, plus I had a high fever. Life sucked,” said Puig. 

She missed a week of school and quarantined herself during this time. 

“I waited six days after I got the rash, just to make sure I didn’t spread it.” When questioned on whether she would recommend to others to get the vaccine even after her experience, she responded, “Yes, because I may have gotten the measles but I could have gotten it a lot worse. Who knows how bad it could have been without the vaccine’s antibodies I already had.”

“Back in the ‘90s I worked on a measles outbreak, and it can be quite frightening. People can get very sick with it,” said Lannie Butler, practice leader nurse at UW Health Services. 

UW didn’t see a measles outbreak, but it deals with influenza every year; last year the first diagnosed case was in August. Butler commented that there is not a lot of hesitation towards required vaccines by students at UW and that well over 2,000 students were vaccinated this year against the flu. 

“There’s very little to discourage anyone from getting a vaccine: they’re very safe. There are some side effects that can happen with vaccines, but the pros outweigh the cons.” Butler went on to say, “We certainly do advocate for vaccines here. The reason we see less disease overall in the world is vaccines. That is a proven fact.”